Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)
Wednesday, January 24th, 2018
Visonary science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin has died.
Born Ursula Kroeber in Berkeley, California, Le Guin loved fantasy and sci-fi as a child, though the latter fell out of her favor when she began to find the frequent themes of militaristic conquest overly repetitive and distasteful. Her studies in graduate school at Columbia University centered on Romance Literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and her own (never published) first attempts at novel writing were set in a more realistic world.
She returned to the fantastical worlds of her youth, however, with her first published novel, Rocannon's World, which was published in 1966, followed by A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968. Despite her publisher's request that she craft what would become the Earthsea Trilogy as books for young adults, Le Guin drew her stylistic and thematic inspiration from complex sources. The books are reminiscent of Tolkien in their scope, but also draw on Le Guin's deep understanding of Taoist texts, from which she drew the concept of a natural balance which must remain in harmony.
For Le Guin, fantasy was a way not of escaping reality, but of laying it bare, making it just strange enough for readers to want to examine it closely. One of her most famous works, The Left Hand of Darkness, offered an a look at a culture without the concept of binary gender long before the topic reached the mainstream. In addition to becoming a regular addition to classroom reading lists, The Left Hand of Darkness won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, the highest honors in science fiction.
Le Guin's honors were not limited to the realm of genre fiction, though she did win nearly every award on offer for science fiction and fantasy, some more than once. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her collection Unlocking the Air and Other Stories, and in 2014 received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation in honor of her lifetime achievements.
In her acceptance speech for this honor, Le Guin pushed for support of writers of literature in all its forms, including those dismissed as "genre fiction." "Hard times are coming," she said, "when we'll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We'll need writers who can remember freedom — poets, visionaries, realists of a larger reality."
Ursula Le Guin passed away on January 22nd, 2018, after several months of ill health. She was 88.